Two of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Unto My Books So Good To Turn” and “Contrast”, show different sides of her unusual personality. Ironically, both works choose encounters with people as opportunities to provide glimpses into a lonely, reclusive life.
Dickinson was an educated woman, having attended Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, as well as the daughter of a prominent attorney. Although she was outgoing in her youth, she disliked being away from home and increasingly preferred isolation as she grew older. It is rumored that once a year, during the holidays, she was forced by her father to help play hostess to guests of the household. Allegedly, those who attended the gatherings never would have guessed that her social behavior during those occasions was anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps “Unto My Books…” was written during one of these times, since the house is full of “retarded guests” from whom she flees to find introspection and seclusion among the “bland countenances” of her “kinsmen of the shelf”. The sober personality she attributes to the books for which she has such comfortable affection are in contrast to the animated, wine-flushed faces of the real kinsmen the reader is drawn to imagine are visiting the household. In this poem, she seeks sanctuary inside a crowded house from the lavish banquet with all of its exotic flavors and spices in favor of the “abstinence” of her “small library”. This poem is a thankful reference to the refuge from the world available within the pages of books, particularly during the holidays, or “tired days”. Dickinson objects to holiday feasts, parties and all of the “bells within” when the outside world is practically falling apart due to the civil war. She seems to find it in poor taste to celebrate when the outside world is “wilderness” in which there are suffering soldiers far from home whom she sympathetically refers to as “far feet of failing men”. On the other hand, “Contrast”, lives up...
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